Category Archives: Film Review

Gore Verbinski’s Rango

Gore Verbinski’s Rango is a wonder among animated films. Naturally the colourful, larger than life medium lends itself to the eyes, ears and hearts of children, which is the direction most of them take. But Rango presents a mature, raunchy, surreal, absurd spectacle rife with a mischievous buzz and peppered with laughs just bordering on the inappropriate, even though they’d go right over their heads anyway. This film broke the record for how many times my jaw hit the floor seeing what they could do with the visuals. It’s detailed, meticulous, gorgeously rendered and beautifully crafted, not to mention speckled with subtle references to other films, literary works and themes that Verbinski no doubt holds dear and uses to amplify the story nicely. Johnny Depp gives wit, endearing naivety and a sense of childlike wonder to his creation of Rango, a little lizard in the big desert, violently thrown from a car wreck into the greatest adventure of his life, and the archetypal heroes journey. He wanders through the baking Mojave desert into the town of Dirt, inhabited by sassy, loveable creatures modelled after all our favourite western characters and carefully constructed from the biological blueprint of wildlife in that area. He blunders his way into becoming the sheriff, and leads the whole town on a quest to locate their most sought after resource: Aqua. Verbinski directs with a snappy, take no prisoners sense of humour, throwing joke after joke after one liner after tongue in cheek nod at us, until we feel so bombarded with fantastic imagery, brilliant voice acting and just plain fun, that we more than feel like we’re getting our money’s worth. Each animal is beautifully designed, from the evil Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy having a ball with a mini gun tail and evil amber eyes), to Beans (a fellow lizard and love interest for our scaly hero), to the sleazy mayor (Ned Beatty, that old turtle), to a rampaging band of bank robbing moles led by a blind Harry Dean Stanton. The cast includes everyone from Timothy Olyphant to Stephen Root, Ray Winstone, Abigail Breslin, Isla Fisher, Lew Temple, Ian Abercrombie, Gil Birmingham and Verbinski himself in multiple roles. There’s just so much going on here visually, from a dusty cameo by The Good, The Bad & The Ugly’s Man With No Name to eerie trees that wander the desert searching for water, a cameo from Hunter S. Thompson’s Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo themselves and don’t even get me started on the batshit crazy aerial chase scene set to a mariachi version of Ride Of The Valkyries. The film is so full of detail, beauty and ambitious artistry that it has taken me at least three viewings to feel like I’ve noticed every character, one liner and cheekily brilliant little touch. It’s that good. Among the whacky antics there’s a theme of owning up to ones identity, becoming responsible for people you save, and finishing the work or task you set out to do, lest you leave your legacy unwritten. A classic.

-Nate Hill

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George Miller’s Babe Pig In The City

George Miller’s Babe Pig In The City is quite the underestimated film. Following on the heels of the sweet, good natured fable that was the first Babe, Miller delved into his creative well, pulled out all the stops and came up with a rip roaring, wondrously exciting sequel that outdoes the original in almost every way. The production design and sets alone are enough to make the film a winner, the titular city comprised from aspects of LA, New York, Sydney, Paris, Vegas and many more. It’s every rural village’s idea of what the city must be like, a gigantic metropolitan dream world of commotion, chaos and creativity. Miller starts, in a charming sequence, at Babe’s humble beginnings on the picturesque, old world farmland and hurtles him on a madcap adventure in this city of cities, joined by some of his farmland friends (Ferdinand the duck and those adorable singing Mice, whose musical numbers are hilarious), and sees him meet a whole host of new ones. This is where the magic of the film really takes hold, as we see hundreds of dogs, cats, monkeys, birds, rodents and one hapless goldfish all come to amazingly realistic life courtesy of Miller and his team. Each animal is beautifully voiced and given his or her own dignity, grace and absolutely grounded story arc to the point where this becomes no longer just a children’s film, but a surrealist take on city life, moral hardships, individual personality and classist conflict as enacted by the national geographic channel. The sinister German shepherd (of course voiced by a German dude), the wise old orangutang Thelonius (James Cosmo) who heartbreakingly won’t leave a risky situation without putting his human clothes on (Miller sneaks in some thoughtful themes) the opera singing cats. Mazda Szubenski deserves a medal for her physical comedy and tart, spry turn as the farmers wife, diligently pursuing babe to the city where she is hilariously out of her element. James Chromwell briefly reprises his wonderful Farmer Hoggett, Mickey Rooney, looking so old and delirious I’d be surprised if he knew what film he was working on, let alone what planet, has a demented cameo as a sinister clown who is not quite right in the head. This film used to scare me as a kid, and looking back I’m both glad that it did and now realize the importance to infusing dark wonder and genuine menace into children’s films, for one day they will grow up and find out that the world is very much like the frightening fables and fairy tales from their youth. This film has sadness and harsh realities, like the Brooklyn voiced bull terrier who can’t control his violent behaviour because he knows it’s in his nature, the cruel and heartless actions of the animal control unit dispatched to round up all the stray puppers and kitties (this left me traumatized) or the terrifying accidental fire that rips through the children’s ward of a hospital. The film takes place in a hyper stylized version of our world but the truths we see and the suffering some of these animals endure couldn’t be closer to reality, and it’s important not to shy away or gloss over that. There’s also wonderful kindness and warm-hearted behaviour too, like the touching family dynamic between the family of chimpanzees, the pink poodle (Russi Taylor) who shelters and feeds tiny kittens who are scared and hungry, or the sympathetic airport custodian who takes pity on Babe and Mrs. Hoggett. It’s a weird, wild world of a film that Miller makes the most out of with every elaborately designed set piece, Dr. Seuss-esque spectacle and surreal flourish, but it’s also a serious minded tale with a brain in its head and a strong emotional centre, showing that ‘a kind and steady heart’ will always help in hard times. A masterpiece for all ages.

-Nate Hill

Daniel Alfredson’s Blackway

Daniel Alfredson’s Blackway (aka Go With Me) is a bizarre disaster that would have made for a cool flick if… well if it didn’t turn out so darn shitty. I suppose you could blame editing, there’s elements that work, some decent performances and genuinely terrific photography but I’m not sure what they were going for in terms of tone and story because it’s an unholy mess. Anthony Hopkins is always a welcome presence, but he has a silly habit of sleepwalking through roles that he’s clearly only taken on to grab a buck (that twitter video of him spazzing out to music in his living room had more charisma than he musters up here), and although he never fully phones it in, there’s a somewhat listless lack of clarity in a lot of his later career work, this included. He plays an ex logger here with tragedy in his past, living the quiet life in the Pacific Northwest, until trouble brews in his small lumber town. Julia Stiles plays a new waitress in town who catches the eye of titular Blackway (Ray Liotta) an ex cop turned powerful crime lord with a hefty anger problem, violent tendencies and an overall scary reputation. He stalks, harasses and won’t leave the poor girl alone, and since he owns the pitiful excuse of a local police force there’s not much she can do but run and seek help elsewhere, supplied by Hopkins and a few of his pals including Alexander Ludwig and Hal Holbrook. If I was a powerful producer with the clout to green-light projects and you pitched me a noir-esque stalker thriller with Hopkins, Liotta and Stiles set in the Northwest I’d chuck my wallet at you and give my blessings. I’d later learn a hard lesson though, because as well as this looks on paper, or rather the alluring one sheet and exciting trailer, it really tanks and blows just about all of its potential. Stiles is always fantastic, she’s one of my favourites and can do no wrong in my book, she shines here. Liotta is a master actor and does a truly terrifying villain turn but he’s sort of in the wrong film. He has a big city gangster vibe that’s decidedly urban and bereft of the rustic trappings you need to pull off a mythic mountain man kingpin, and as such he feels out of place despite his great talents and considerable efforts. There’s a few decent set pieces like a face off at Blackway’s backroads whorehouse, but this thing is paced so oddly it’s hard to keep up or care. Alfredson is an accomplished filmmaker who gave us the original Lisbeth Salander trilogy, but I think he tried too hard to make this into something of an art film or really mean something when in reality there’s nothing more than a painfully average thriller. Worth it for the actors and the drop dead gorgeous scenery (I will forever be a sucker for films shot and set in this region), but other than that it’s a big swing and a bigger miss.

-Nate Hill

The Favourite

TheFavourite

With The Favourite, Yorgos Lanthimos offers less of an abrupt change from his previous films than a (Greek?) olive branch.  The staccato, exact line readings and bizarre scenarios of The Lobster and The Killing Of A Sacred Deer are ostensibly replaced with crisp but hardly dense period dialogue and a straightforward pitch black comedy set in the royal palace of England in the early 1700s.  Perhaps it’s a function of turning writing duties over to other hands (Debra Davis and Tom McNamara), perhaps it’s the conscious choice to let his stars relax and play the parts more naturalistically, but in any case he’s landed on something approaching broad appeal with this female centric examination of power, love and cruelty.  However, it’s not all that far off from Lanthimos’ usual examinations of people’s darker impulses, though; The Favourite is very much a natural continuation of what he’s been discussing with his films for years now.  With a fierce cast, lush production design and tight pace, The Favourite deserves not only awards seasons accolades but large audiences as well.

Which is not to indicate it’s a teaspoon of sugar by any measure.  As mentioned, the film is about power: The power dynamics of a society in which people can pass from the heights of royal luxury to being whipped like a dog in the blink of an eye.  Emma Stone’s Abigail is intimately familiar with this as we meet her, being molested and shoved into shit as she ventures to the Queen’s castle in search of a distant relative who may be able to return her to a decent level of status after her father’s fall from grace has left her penniless and, worse, low class.  Queen Ann, played with equal doses of sadness and mania by Olivia Coleman, is traumatized by loss and bears an almost Trumpian distaste for the details of her job.  Fortunately she has Lady Sarah, her top advisor, companion, and truth serum, brought to life by a delightfully arch Rachel Weisz.  Sarah gets to manage the political turmoil around a war with France while keeping up the appearance of the Queen’s supremacy, then her distant cousin arrives meekly seeking any employment available—which is of course to say Abigail is on a stealth mission to regain her lost stature.  With these three powerful personalities increasingly wrapped up in each other’s orbits, the tension and gamesmanship quickly take their toll, which is reflected throughout in the increasingly frayed faces of the women (keep an eye on those faces—their evolutions provide one of the many visual treats on display).

Whereas Lanthimos cleans up some of the eccentricities of his prior works here, he still carries a deeply held distrust of and disgust with man’s selfishness and general misanthropy—it feels no accident that there’s about as much vomiting as sex in The Favourite.  This satire of class  ends as most of his previous films have, in a place where no good deed’s been done without ulterior motive, every act of seeming kindness comes with a sharp dagger hidden under voluptuous finery.  I’m not sure if this is a new direction for the filmmaker or simply a refinement of his sardonic vision.  In any case, it’s a smart, entertaining and nasty little marvel of a movie, one that may not light the box office on fire but one that will only grow in esteem as more viewers discover it.

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Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris

Concept: Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris is not a remake of the 70’s version but a separate adaptation of the novel by Stanislaw Lem, existing as its own vision of that story. Many people ripped on this as being an inferior retread of Andrei Tarkovsky’s strange, deliberately slow film (which didn’t work for me). Now bear with me: in my humble and frequently disputed opinion, Soderbergh’s is not only the better film but the definitive version of this story. It’s shorter, less theatrical, far more accessible but in the end it’s timbre simply struck a far more resonant chord with me, and I never argue with that intuitive barometer. This version is also slow, but finds a hypnotic, mesmeric cadence to the story of psychologist Chris Kelvin (George Clooney), his deceased wife Rheya (Natascha McElhone) and the mysterious sphere of luminescence, the planet Solaris. Kelvin has been called there by his friend and colleague Gibarian (Ulrich Tukur) after some… odd things start happening to the astronauts aboard, and it’s here on this quiet, near abandoned space station that he undergoes an intense, otherworldly and very personal metaphysical journey that is catalyzed by the forces of the planet sparkling below them and deepened further by the difficult, unexplored regions of human psyches and behaviour. The planet below has a habit of resurrecting Kelvin’s wife who died years before and placing her on the station with him. Why? Who can say, but it certainly provides everyone involved with all sorts of dilemmas both internal and external, starting with the nature of love, loss and grief. This version of Rheya is clearly not Chris’s wife, but a copy made by the planet based on his memory, mental images and unresolved emotions surrounding her. He struggles at first to see this, then he does. She too struggles at first with existential confusion, and comes to a similar realization, with heartbreaking results. This film is thoughtful and ponderous even by Science Fiction standards, there isn’t a single action scene or anything like that, it is solely character based, atmospheric storytelling that draws you in ways some people have forgotten film is capable of. Clooney is at his most vulnerable here, the charm, affability and mile wide smile nowhere in sight. This is a man whose grief has come back full circle to him, and the haunted, staggered reaction upon seeing his wife again for the first time is my favourite work he has ever done. McElhone is an actress who rarely gets the chance to exercise her full potential, but this is a career best for her, she goes to some places that are hard to get to, and her methods of getting there in her obvious scene prep and meditative focus are beautiful to behold. The scenes near Solaris are interlaced with their complicated, stormy yet devoted relationship years prior, which is the lynchpin and mapping schematic that Solaris later draws on for… whatever it thinks it’s doing. Composer Cliff Martinez often works with Soderbergh, and their collaboration here is succinct and tandem, the soft, rhythmic electronic beat pulsing along to images of sleek, still hallways of the station and the vividly coloured planet below, holding secrets that seem just out of reach. The film questions not only love and life but the way human beings perceive each other, whether a tangible person can exist based only upon someone’s dimming memory of them, and what part exactly does the soul play in all of this. “We don’t have to think like that anymore”, Rheya lovingly reassures Chris when he worriedly questions the semantics of Solaris’s plan. Opaque is the nature of this story, but through it we are invited to feel our way to truths that hide behind the swirling pulsars adorning Solaris and the ongoing relationship between these two lovers who are star crossed in more than just a metaphorical sense. Complex, difficult themes to be sure, but it’s all dealt with in organic, rapturous fashion as Soderbergh lets glances, body language, music and affection tell the story instead of heaps of dialogue or obvious beats. A love story wrapped up in a gorgeous musical tone poem gilded by an intelligent, thought provoking science fiction story that questions the essential, reaches for answers in unconventional ways and does things with film that the medium was meant for. One of my top ten favourite films ever made, and up there with the very best Sci Fi’s out there.

-Nate Hill

Sergio Corbucci’s DJANGO

There is an inherent perversion that comes with Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 masterpiece, DJANGO, that is incredibly alluring. The coffin dragging masochistic antihero saves a women in distress, only to bring her to a town in deep dilapidation that is the battleground between Mexican federales and a group of red hooded Christian zealots. The film has an innate ability to transcend the norms of cinematic violence, sexual liberation, and religious faux pas to create a truly unique film that not only acts as a genre setter, but a template for the “hero” to come up victorious yet still accrue the vengeance of his previous transgressions.

Franco Nero’s performance as the mysterious stranger is a revelation. He’s part Paul Newman with his steely blue eyes and movie star looks and part Clint Eastwood with his ominous presence that is a visual embodiment of the shadow of an axe that looms. He gives a command performance that is filled with a confidence that can dwarf mostly any performance it is stacked up against. Nero’s economy of movement is mesmerizing as he fills the frame with his stoically soft and strategic physicality.

The film intentionally leaves little to the imagination. The violence is projected right on screen, forcing the audience to be culprits in the tale of bloody revenge and sacrifice. The shock value of the film, while tame by current standards remain a stark reality of what pushing cinematic boundaries used to be. The film is not self righteous or heavy handed in its messaging. It is solely an entertaining film that operates in extreme shades of grey that tiers off its villains, uniting its world to overcome the overarching villain of oppression coddled by greed.

Luis Bacalov’s score and title theme, which has populated many Tarantino films and used as the title theme for DJANGO UNCHAINED, is as big a star of the picture as Nero and Corbucci’s visceral brutality towards its characters. The main theme is triumphant and empowering, yet the trials Django has to endure are a combination of wrong place at the wrong time and acting as swift and appropriate justice to those who are on the opposite side of his post Civil War machine gun.

The narrative capsizes in the final act by stripping Django of his ability and forces not only the hero, but the audience as well, into a tense and ultimately rewarding showdown in a graveyard. The film’s ultraviolence and commentary is not for everyone, but one of the purposes of its existence is to invert and pervert the heroes journey. While the viewer is unaware of Django’s previous encounters and misgivings; what is certain is that he’s a force to be reckon with and one of the most dangerous and satisfying lone wolves to be on screen.

Tony Scott’s Domino

Domino is Tony Scott’s fire roasted, charbroiled, turbo charged masterpiece. I’ve seen it over fifty times and every time I seem to enjoy it more. It’s pure unfiltered Scott, free from the nagging pressures of the studio, financed by his own company, a loving treatise of pure style and breakneck kamikaze energy that doesn’t let you breathe for a second. It’s loosely based on the life of Hollywood baby turned rough and tumble bounty hunter Domino Harvey (Keira Knightley), daughter of actor Laurence Harvey. She leaves the 90210 world of rich snobs and gilded mansions to pursue a grittier path, in the form of restless underground law enforcement. Now, the film sheepishly admits it’s not entirely based on a true story before the credits even start, so as long as you know that much of it is fantasy going in, you won’t feel cheated. Knightley is a pissed off, sparking roman candle in the role of her career, shedding the dainty image and going full furious grunge, giving Domino an alternative edge and damaged pathos that fuels much of the film’s kinetic energy. Mickey Rourke plays her grizzled boss Ed Moseby, a veteran bounty hunter with a trail of violence behind him, who’s weary and tough in equal parts. Rourke fires on all cylinders, giving some of his simultaneously hilarious, heartbreaking, badass and best work. Edgar Ramiraz plays scrappy Choco, third musketeer and eventual lover to Domino with fiery Latin charisma. Christopher Walken, weird mode fully activated, waltzes in as a reality TV producer with the attention span of a ferret on chrystal meth, Mena Suvari as his squirrelly assistant, Lucy Liu as a prim, OCD afflicted federal agent who verbally spars with Knightley in flash forwards, Delroy Lindo is excellent as their bail bondsman handler Claremont Williams, and there’s scuzzy work from Dale Dickey, Lew Temple, Macy Gray, Monique, Dabney Coleman, Jacqueline Bisset, Jerry Springer and more. Just to sample some of the esoteric weirdness that goes hand in hand with the hard boiled crime elements, Tom Waits has a beautifully perplexing cameo as a spiritual wanderer who has a mysterious meeting with Domino and her friends in the Mojave desert, imparting some prophetic truth to them that only Scott and the sand dunes are in on. This is the kind of film that grabs you by the collar and hurls you down an asphalt horizon of hallucinatory camera work, brings you an intricate, lurid story of true crime gone wrong, and a balls to the wall depiction of life at its fastest, wildest and most out of control, as only the maestro of such things, Scott, can bring you. Domino, at least in this film, lives a crazy life that culminates in a hellish Mexican standoff and subsequent shootout atop a Space Needle-esque Vegas casino, a fitting way for a Scott film to come full circle and certainly not the first time he’s ended one in that situation. He uses cinematic magic to create visual poetry here, his sucker punch editing, nebulous display of scorched out colours, thunderous symphony of sound design and hectic, buzzing aesthetic isn’t for everyone but it’s something truly unforgettable and a style wholly his own, I truly miss the guy and believe he was one of maybe the ten best filmmakers to ever work in Hollywood. This is by far his best film, definitely his most personal and also the most arresting vision he’s ever sculpted, it will leave you haunted, pummelled, fired up and deliciously puzzled. Domino ironically says in voiceover near the end, “I’ll never tell you what it all meant”. Scott tells you, in his own special way, and if you’re tuned in to his otherworldly frequency you’ll treasure this masterwork as much as I do, and will continue to for years to come.

-Nate Hill